Wildlife Forensics

Wildlife forensic science is when science is used in legal cases that involve wildlife. These cases can include poaching, the fur or ivory trade, the exotic pet trade, and even sometimes oil spills. The wildlife forensic specialist uses evidence such as animal parts or products that have been collected to identify the species that it belongs to and sometimes the cause of death. This physical evidence allows them to link the evidence to the suspects.

Wildlife forensic science is being used all over the world to help stop crimes against wildlife. In Africa, geneticists are using it to hunt poachers. This article is about a former schoolteacher who is wanted in Zimbabwe for poaching rhinoceroses. The horn from a rhino is incredibly valuable. Although they had suspected this man as a poacher, the only way to actually make a case against him would be with rhino DNA. When he finally was convicted, a new tactic in wildlife preservation was made. The genetic fingerprinting methods that are successful in the criminal justice system are now being used to solve poaching crimes.

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African Rhino” By Kaksbhatt Under  Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 4.0 International

To help with this genetic fingerprinting method, a database full of genetic samples from African Rhinoceroses was created. A veterinarian and her colleagues collected DNA from every rhinoceros that they could find. Right now it is over 20,000. They also trained park rangers to collect DNA from any rhino that they find killed, de-horned or moved. The DNA from this database is used to link a rhino carcass to any horn or blood found on a suspected poacher or their clothes.

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Unwrapped Rhino Horn” By ukhomeoffice Under  Creative Commons Attribution 2.0 Generic

A similar approach is being used to catch people poaching African elephants. Over the past 15 years, the director of the Center for Conservation Biology at the University of Washington and his colleagues have collected and analyzed DNA from elephant dung in order to create a map of the ranged of different elephant groups. This can help link where the ivory that is taken from poachers originated. This approach showed that most of the ivory seized from poachers was from the same two areas. Now instead of focusing everywhere that elephants are found, they can limit their search to these two spots.

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African Elephant Walking” By Charles J Sharp Under  Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 3.0 Unported

California crime labs are focusing on ivory, and also a variety of other illegally traded animal items. They can now determine if a zebra hide is real and they can study the strips and the DNA on it to determine if it is from the Grevy’s zebra which is endangered. They are working on creating a database for future wildlife tracking. It includes feathers, blood and saliva samples from animals all over the world including sharks, abalone, bears and even native plants that are targeting for the exotic trade.This database can help confirm the species and habitat of a suspected poached animal.

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Grevy’s Zebra Grazing” By bobosh_t Under Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 2.0 Generic